Thursday, December 07, 2006

Remember the Failures

We tend to remember our failures more than we need to. I do at least. Here is the story of my most loathed personal failure.

On the very first day of school, mom and I strode down to the bus stop to wait with the other neighborhood kids and their folks. We were a mess of pictures and hugs and final bits of advice - "What ever you do, don't hold it in all day!" That big yellow motorbus put an end to the festivities and it was goodbye for real and, alright another hug and, OK one more picture and, really goodbye for real this time. I probably waved at mom and yelled something sweet, and then I turned to mount the steps of the bus. The driver was a nice, plenty large woman whose name left me sometime around middle school. She welcomed us aboard with a friendly smile and invited us to sit wherever we liked. I took a seat next to a young girl of about my age. We discussed the sort of things four-year-olds might discuss on the first day of school: our names, our lunches, and Sesame Street.

When we arrived at Teasley Elementary, I said goodbye to my new friend and took that first trepedacious step onto the path of academic enlightenment. That path has not been an easy one for me. I couldn't read at all until third grade, middle school and high school grades were nothing of which to be proud, my senior year transcript appears to depict attempted academic suicide, and I would not have gotten into this respectable university if mom had not personally cashed in favors with the principal. Even now I am astonishingly close to failing out of higher education all together. But none of these monumental failings in personal discipline, academic responsibility, even honesty and integrity, have trumped in frequency or duration of loathing remembrance the blunder I made my second week on the job.

Our parents continued walking us to the bus stop the next few days, each morning taking fewer photos, shedding fewer tears and offering less advice - "Geez mom, I know how to go to the bathroom!" By Friday, they stopped chaperoning all together. Through most of that week, I would locate my new girlfriend and try to sit beside her if the space was open. Then came Monday.

On the first day of the second week, our rolly-polly bus driver doled out seating assignments. The purpose of such a thing, I gather, is to bring order to a bus worth of prepubescent chaos. These assignments were carefully devised to maximise busly harmony by matching bench pairs for ideal personal compatibility. A week had been given to behavioral observation and psychological profiling (no doubt aided by the poorly concealed video camera and the magno-mirror-enhanced eye of our supposedly innocuous "bus driver," doubtlessly former KGB), all of which was analyzed by NASA supercomputers to produce the perfect seating configuration. This seating assignment would see us through a successful kindergarten year and onto a bright future in further grades. But I missed the point.

Monday, Ms. Bus Driver pointed to, "your seat, Scott." As a rule, I was not an obedient child, but these were my first days out of the nest and I was eager to please. I spotted my lady buddy and waved to her as I took the prescribed seat next to some nobody booger-eater. For some reason, it never occurred to me that this seat assignment was any kind of permanent rule. I was told to sit somewhere and I did. Mission Accomplished. Done and done. Gold star for me! Sure, it didn't seem very logical to be given a seat assignment for one day only, but when had I known adults to be logical?

Come Tuesday, I spied my old bus compadre and beelined to her half-occupied bench. We were just catching up when Madame Schoolbus spoke the most painfully inditing words I have ever heard: "Scott, why are you sitting there?" She was not upset, merely curious. Curious as to how anyone would ignore so simple a direction. I quickly figured out what she meant, where I was supposed to be, and what had gone wrong. No one laughed or teased me - I don't think anyone noticed. It was the most uneventful indiscretion, yet every day on the bus for the rest of the year, I was helpless but to remember. I decided some months afterward that the driver surely must have forgotten the incident, but how, oh how I remembered. With each passing day I made the conclusion with greater confidence: "She's forgotten but I'll never forget." And I never have.

Why is that? It was no terrible mistake to have made, I was not socially stigmatized for having made it, and the failure revealed no disturbing flaw in my morality, reasoning skills or intelligence: it was only a misunderstanding. I think the reason I have so fixated on this failure is to do with its developmental significance. It was the first time I was embarrassed before an authority figure other than my parents. Lovely Mrs. Bussy never knew, but her soft-spoken question broke new ground in my psyche. I wonder how frequently we tread on the fresh soil of another's soul without ever realizing. Perhaps if everybody blogged their epiphanies, and everybody read them, we'd all be really really happy.